EDITORIAL: It’s time for new, active leadership for Malheur County

Malheur County has made precious few gains in the past decade in ways that make life better for all of its people. Local voters can’t expect that to change unless they decide to make changes in the Malheur County Court. They should vote to do so.

In the past decade, Malheur County has largely been stuck in neutral. Its population is about the same today as it was in 2010, while other parts of Oregon and across the border in Idaho boom. Housing is and remains in short supply.

As a county, we have retained the highest poverty rate in Oregon. About one in five of our residents have incomes that leave them impoverished. Worse yet, Malheur County has among the worst rates of poverty among children in any county in Oregon. In the modern era, that is shameful.

Our people are among the least healthy in Oregon by several measures. Substance abuse – drugs and alcohol – continue to ravage our communities.

For the past decade, two leaders have been in place on the Malheur County Court and could have led the way to change all of that.

Dan Joyce was elected county judge in 2004 after serving as a county commissioner. Don Hodge was elected county commissioner in 2010. They have had a decade or more to advance Malheur County, but the needle is largely stuck.

And there is no more glaring evidence of their inadequate service to the public than the Treasure Valley Reload Center.

Joyce and Hodge were part of the deal in 2019 to buy the land outside Nyssa for that project. They paid $1 million more than the property was worth -– after citizens questioned them in a public meeting about costs. What’s worse, they saddled taxpayers with debt to swing the deal. They left the people of Malheur County on the hook to pay it off -– with interest.

Recall that Joyce and Hodge were part of the deal to pay Greg Smith an extra $6,000 a month to manage the project. He was supposed to land the county a fat federal grant to develop the county’s industrial park. But his work was so shoddy federal officials labeled his pitch “unacceptable.” What was the reaction of Joyce and Hodge? Far as we can find, they never exhibited the slightest concern over that mess – and they kept right on paying Smith.

Last fall, they were both quick to grab golden shovels to break ground on the project. They should have been digging into the finances of this project instead. There should have been more questioning about a steady string of delays. Instead, they posed for photos.

Now, that project is some $10 million short. Everyone’s looking around for more money – public money – to fill that hole. But the public is looking for accountability. How did this happen? Who put us in this hole?

Joyce most often responds to questions with “That’s a good question” and “I don’t know.” Hodge has quit responding to Enterprise questions, even regarding his own re-election effort.

Malheur County voters need county leaders who will ask probing questions, and answer questions. They need county leaders who will put a stop to the ongoing nonsense and treat this project with the business sense and judgment it requires.

Voters have a chance to see that in the candidates challenging Joyce and Hodge. Voters should finish the reform of the county court that they started two years ago when they voted Commissioner Larry Wilson out of office and installed the capable Ron Jacobs.

Tom Vialpando, now mayor of Vale, is seeking the county judge seat. In his short time in office in Vale, Vialpando has exhibited strong community leadership skills. He communicates, and clearly. He identifies problems -– and then seeks solutions. He’s no bench warmer.

Jim Mendiola is seeking the county seat commission. Mendiola doesn’t have a government service track record. But for years he led one of the toughest crowds in the county – those who put on the Vale 4th of July Rodeo. Mendiola knows a thing or two about calling bull when he sees it. He’s a good listener, admits what he doesn’t know, but has the ability to ask questions, to learn and to get ’er done.

With their vote, the people of Malheur County can speak out clearly about how they feel their current leaders have conducted themselves. Malheur County voters can put county government back on track by putting Tom Vialpando and Jim Mendiola to work for them. – LZ